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Who are the Crimean Tatars?

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One of the most overlooked parts of Ukraine is its diversity. The Crimean Tatars – a national minority native to Crimea and recognized as an indigenous people of Ukraine – are a perfect example.

The Crimean Tatars – also referred to as Kirimli or Qırımlı – endured wars, mass deportations, and waves of repression by both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 reopened many old wounds.

While much of their history remains undiscovered around the globe, including inside Ukraine, Crimean Tatars continue fighting for their freedom within independent Ukraine through activism and by taking up arms against Russia in the full-scale war.

Who are the Crimean Tatars?

Crimean Tatars are one of Ukraine’s indigenous peoples who have been central to Crimea’s history for many centuries.

Descended from an array of ethnic groups with roots in antiquity (Greeks, Goths, Scythians) and the Mongol nomads of the thirteenth-century Golden Horde, the Crimean Tatars are composed of different sub-ethnic groups that have lived in the Crimean mountains, the steppe, or along the coast – Nogai, Tatar, and Yaliboilu.

Although not all Crimean Tatars are practicing Sunni Muslims, their culture is rooted in the Islamic tradition. Crimean Tatars celebrate Islamic holidays, like Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, among others.

Their mother tongue is Crimean Tatar, a Turkic language. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) classifies this language as “endangered” since its primary speakers are older generations, as most Crimean Tatars today speak Russian and Ukrainian.

Have Crimean Tatars always been a minority in Crimea?

Before the Russian Empire conquered Crimea in 1783, Crimean Tatars constituted the vast majority of the peninsula’s population for centuries.

In 1441, Crimean Tatars formed their first state – the Crimean Khanate – centered in Bakhchisarai. The khanate was very closely aligned with, and at times subservient to, the Ottoman Empire, and remained in the Ottoman orbit for centuries.

The Crimean Khanate grew into a powerful state with extensive yet complicated relations with its neighbors, including the Ukrainian Cossacks. It exercised significant political and military control over the Crimean peninsula and the inland steppe region of today’s southern Ukraine for over three centuries.

In fact, as Cambridge historian Rory Finnin has pointed out, much of the frontline of Russia’s war against Ukraine today follows the contours of what were once the northern reaches of the Crimean Tatar khanate.

With Ottoman support, Khan Devlet I Giray led the Crimean Khanate’s army to Moscow, burning the city and its suburbs in 1571.

In the 1700s, Crimean Tatars comprised 95% of Crimea’s population. But between 1772 and 1782, Russian Empress Catherine II staged four invasions of the Crimean peninsula. The Crimean Tatar khanate ultimately succumbed to this Russian aggression.

In 1783, Catherine annexed the territory controlled by the khanate and kicked off a long trend of Russian repression of the Crimean Tatars, expelling them en masse and erasing their culture.

To promote visions of a return to Greek antiquity and the Byzantine Empire, Catherine stripped hundreds of cities and villages of Crimean Tatar names and replaced them with toponyms based on Greek.

Kezlev, a western coastal city in Crimea, became Yevpatoria, allegedly named after the Pontic Greek king Mithridates VI Eupator. Aqyar became Sevastopol.

Many Crimean Tatars plunged into poverty and lost their homes as their land was handed out to Russian elites.

Apart from the crushing economic and political realities of the Russian Empire, which marginalized the Crimean Tatars, there was also the imposition of Christianity on what was a traditionally Islamic culture.

Roughly 330,000 Crimean Tatars left the peninsula by 1793, mainly to different parts of the Ottoman Empire, just ten years after Catherine II came to power, according to Crimean Tatar historian Gulnara Bekirova in her book “A Half Century of Resistance: Crimean Tatars from Deportation to Return (1941-1999).”

An infographic showing the dramatic decline in the percentage of Crimean Tatar population on the Crimean peninsula from the 1700s until Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014. (Graphic: Liza Kukharska)

Another huge emigration wave resulted from the Crimean War in 1853-1856 and its aftermath. In 1857, Tsar Alexander explicitly ordered “the cleansing” of the Crimean Tatars from the Crimean peninsula and their replacement by Slavic peasants inside the Russian Empire.

Huge numbers of Crimean Tatars left for Turkey, and their population share dropped to about 25% by the end of the nineteenth century. Today, Turkey hosts the largest Crimean Tatar diaspora in the world.

As Russian regimes changed, the repressive trends in Crimea continued.

In the years after the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks destroyed the Crimean Tatar national movement that fought for Crimean Tatar autonomy.

Before their defeat, the movement organized the first ever Crimean Tatar Kurultai – a national constituent assembly with democratically-elected delegates who agreed on their national government structure and basic laws to govern Crimea.

The leaders of the Kurultai traveled to Kyiv to pursue cooperation with the Ukrainian leaders of what would soon become the Ukrainian People’s Republic — a short-lived independent Ukrainian state that lasted from 1917-1921.

The Kurultai also proclaimed another short-lived Crimean Tatar state in Crimea – the Crimean People’s Republic.

The Bolsheviks countered by creating the Sevastopol Military Revolutionary Committee, which militarily took control of Crimea. The Kurultai was disbanded, and Crimean Tatar National Government leader Noman Chelebidzhikhan (Çelebicihan) was arrested and shot dead, his body thrown into the Black Sea, historical records say.

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s terror took another stab at Crimean Tatars in the 1930s – arresting and executing dozens of intelligentsia members for “anti-revolutionary activities.” Like everywhere else in the Soviet Union, forced collectivization led to hunger and many deaths in Crimea.

The centuries-long decline of the Crimean Tatar population was accompanied by the Russian resettlement of the peninsula. Thousands of Soviet settlers sent to Crimea by the Kremlin remade the demography of the peninsula.

By 1939, what once was Crimea’s dominant native population became a minority, with around 219,000 Crimean Tatars left in Crimea, making up 19% of the population.

People arrange vigil lanterns in memory of the victims of the 1944 deportation of Crimean Tatars on May 18 in Odesa, Ukraine. (Yulii Zozulia/ Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

The mass deportation of Crimean Tatars

The biggest blow to Crimean Tatars came in 1944 when the Soviet regime accused the entire Crimean Tatar nation of collaboration with the Nazis, who occupied Crimea for two years during World War II.

This false accusation was despite the fact that the vast majority of Crimean Tatars fought in the Red Army during the war. In fact, thousands of Crimean Tatars won medals from the Kremlin for their service; six became Heroes of the Soviet Union.

This false accusation was largely based on the work of Islamic Committees, which were Nazi-created offices tasked with supporting the German authorities during occupation but also used to advocate for Crimean Tatar interests.

Historians now agree that a very small percentage of Crimean Tatars collaborated with the Nazis, and like Russian and Ukrainian collaborators in Crimea, many of them were forced to do so to survive under occupation.

Nevertheless, Stalin ordered the deportation of all Crimean Tatars from the peninsula. Historians now believe he did so out of fear of a future war with Turkey over control of the Straits of the Bosporus and Dardanelles.

Up to 200,000 Crimean Tatars – mostly women, children, and the elderly – were deported to Central Asia and Siberia, while Crimean Tatar men who were fighting for the Red Army at the time were sent to labor camps.

It is believed that half of those deported died during deportation or within the first few years of their resettlement due to maltreatment, diseases, and hunger.

After 1944, Crimea was Russified once again to erase any traces of its indigenous population: more villages were renamed, monuments were destroyed, and stolen homes and properties were redistributed to Soviet settlers. In the meantime, Soviet authorities continued spreading propaganda about the Crimean Tatars as traitors to the USSR.

Political statements and government-sponsored literature smeared Crimean Tatars as “Mongol savages” (a reference to the Golden Horde of the Mongol empire that controlled the peninsula in the 13th century) who were not indigenous to Crimea and supported the Nazis.

Nevertheless, the Crimean Tatar national movement never stopped fighting for the right to return to their ancestral homeland. In fact, as Rory Finnin argues, their movement was the most organized, innovative, and influential campaign of dissent in the Soviet Union.

In the 1980s, the Soviet regime admitted that Stalin’s deportation was “barbaric” and allowed the Crimean Tatars to return to Crimea. The Soviet government under Mikhail Gorbachev reversed Stalinist policies and rehabilitated Crimean Tatars.

Ukraine, as well as Lithuania, Latvia, and Canada, recognize the deportation of Crimean Tatars as genocide.

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What is the status of Crimean Tatars in Ukraine?

Ukraine officially recognizes Crimean Tatars as one of the country’s indigenous people, yet the group’s political power is limited.

According to a 2021 law “On Indigenous Peoples of Ukraine,” Ukraine grants them the right to self-determination, political status within the limits of Ukrainian law, and the free exercise of their economic, social, and cultural development.

Crimean Tatars are represented by the Mejlis – a high representative and executive body that consists of 33 members, and the Kurultai – a national congress of 350 delegates. While the Kurultai is typically made up of older-generation Crimean Tatars who oversee the group’s strategic direction, the Mejlis deals with more bureaucratic tasks.

While both of these bodies were “recognized” by the Ukrainian government in 2014, the recognition is symbolic. Neither of these bodies has legislative power, but they do represent mainstream Crimean Tatar civil society. They serve as advisors to the government, lobbying for Crimean Tatar issues and representing the group internationally.

Several high-profile Crimean Tatar leaders, including the acting chairman of Mejlis Refat Chubarov, and the former chairman Mustafa Dzhemilev, have been active in Ukrainian politics. The two were the first Crimean Tatars to enter the Ukrainian parliament in 1998, with Dzhemilev still serving in the post at 79 years old.

Leader of Crimean Tatar People and member of the Ukrainian Parliament Mustafa Dzhemilev speaks during an exclusive interview on the 78th anniversary of the 1944 deportation of Crimean Tatars from Crimea in Kyiv on May 18, 2022. (Dogukan Keskinkilic/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

How did their lives change after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014?

Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 opened yet another tragic chapter in the life of Crimea’s indigenous population.

With many Crimean Tatars resisting Russian occupation and insisting that Crimea is Ukraine, the Kremlin has been carrying out a targeted campaign of repression to punish dissent.

Russia uses a mix of religious profiling, intimidation, and criminal charges of terrorism that Ukraine and the international community deem fabricated for political reasons.

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The charges are based on the connections of the Crimean Tatar community to Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamic party that operates legally in Ukraine and most countries around the world but is banned in Russia.

Lawyers say Russian courts are guilty of countless procedural violations and crimes, from the fabrication of evidence to the torture of witnesses and the accused.

Although Crimean Tatars remain a minority in Crimea, they make up two-thirds of all political prisoners on the peninsula – 202 Crimean Tatars have been imprisoned or otherwise persecuted, most on bogus terrorism charges with sentences of up to 20 years in prison.

An infographic showing that the majority of political prisoners in Crimea are Crimean Tatars. (Liza Kukharska)

Since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, authorities have also accused Russia of mobilizing Crimean Tatars for the war effort in disproportionately large numbers.

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How big is the Crimean Tatar community in Ukraine?

While Crimean Tatars have become more visible politically and culturally since 2014, it is difficult to estimate the group’s current demographics as many Crimean Tatars still live in occupied Crimea.

According to the 2001 Ukrainian census, there were around 250,000 Crimean Tatars in Ukraine. The Russian census conducted in 2014 after annexation, reveals numbers of around 280,000, but Crimean Tatar representatives say the real numbers are higher as many Crimean Tatars reportedly didn’t take part in the census.

Mejlis Chairman Refat Chubarov told the Kyiv Independent that there were around 300,000 Crimean Tatars in Crimea in 2013. Around 35,000-45,000 of them left after annexation, Chubarov added, but said these statistics are hard to confirm.

The Crimean Tatar community has also grown increasingly active in Ukraine’s cultural scene since 2014.

Crimean Tatar singer Susana Jamaladinova, known as Jamala, represented Ukraine at the 2016 Eurovision, winning with the hit song “1944” that tells the story of her people’s tragic deportation.

Another Crimean Tatar cultural jewel, Nariman Aliyev’s film “Homeward” won in the Best Film category at the 2019 Bucharest International Film Festival. The film dives into Crimea-related issues.

Ukrainian Crimean Tatar singer Jamala shows off her trophy at a press conference after winning the Eurovision Song Contest final at the Ericsson Globe Arena in Stockholm, on May 15, 2016. (MAJA SUSLIN/TT/AFP via Getty Images)

There is also a growing number of both governmental and non-governmental initiatives, publications, performances, and language courses aimed at increasing the visibility of the Crimean Tatar minority in Ukraine.

After Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022, some Crimean Tatars have joined Ukraine’s Armed Forces to fight Russian aggression. Many serve in the “Crimea” Battalion, a volunteer unit that consists mostly of Crimean Tatars and was formed after Russia’s invasion back in 2014.

It has since grown to become a full-fledged battalion and is now subordinate to Ukraine’s International Legion. Some Crimean Tatars also serve in other formations, like the Chechen battalions.  

In September of 2023, the government appointed Rustem Umerov – an outspoken Crimean Tatar politician – as Ukraine’s Minister of Defense.

“We are bringing the issue of Crimea, Crimean prisoners, and all our people in Crimea to a new international level,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an address on May 18, 2023, commemorating the Russian genocide of Crimean Tatars.

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